State Politics

Once bitter rivals, Gov. Rick Scott, Speaker Richard Corcoran now cheer each other on

Florida Governor Rick Scott launched a ‘victory tour’ Tuesday morning, June 13, 2017, at Jungle Island to celebrate his successes at the recently concluded legislative session.
Florida Governor Rick Scott launched a ‘victory tour’ Tuesday morning, June 13, 2017, at Jungle Island to celebrate his successes at the recently concluded legislative session. emichot@miamiherald.com

Gov. Rick Scott flew around the state on a five-city “victory tour” Tuesday to promote last week’s special legislative session, and leading the cheers was a man who was once his biggest critic: House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The two Republicans fought bitterly for months but became fast friends in recent days as their political agendas finally converged. Each man traded support for the other’s priorities, and both declared victory after a round of dealing in private.

Scott’s “Fighting for Florida’s Future Victory Tour” began at Miami’s Jungle Island and included stops in West Palm Beach, Fort Myers, Tampa and Jacksonville, as the governor took full advantage of his ability to cover lots of ground quickly on his personal jet, at his own expense.

Scott touted the Legislature’s passage of a $100 increase in per-student public school spending; a new $85 million job growth fund; the continued funding of Vists Florida at $76 million; and $50 million to start massive repairs to Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee.

“None of this would have happened without the support of the speaker, who worked hard all session,” Scott said of Corcoran, the same person he spent months calling a career politician and a job killer for his relentless criticism of Enterprise Florida.

Scott’s vocal criticism of Corcoran’s secret dealing has vanished, now that Scott himself is a beneficiary of Corcoran’s compromises.

“It’s great to partner with the governor,” said Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican who persuaded Scott to end “corporate welfare” job incentive programs at Enterprise Florida.

Scott and Corcoran held an event at Creative Signs Design, a Tampa company for 31 years.

“We have an accountable system. We’re improving every year,” Scott said. “I know that’s something the speaker cares very much about.”

The surprise truce between Scott and Corcoran has major political implications.

Scott is well-positioned to run for the U.S. Senate next year against three-term Democrat Bill Nelson.

Corcoran is considering a populist bid for governor in a GOP primary, where the early front-runner is Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Corcoran sees himself as a rebel who attacks the status quo, and Scott is a symbol of the party establishment. The speaker conceded his image could suffer if he’s viewed as a conventional politician.

“There’s always that risk,” Corcoran said. “But I think my record speaks for itself.”

Scott has the high name recognition Corcoran lacks, and he’s an ally of President Donald Trump, who will be a major figure in the 2018 elections in Florida, a state pivotal to Trump’s victory last fall.

Any Republican running for high office in Florida in 2018 in a competitive primary had better be on Trump’s good side, which means being an ally of Scott.

The last and largest part of an elaborate political deal between the two Republicans is Scott’s expected signing this week of Corcoran’s top priority, HB 7069, which expands charter schools and teacher bonuses and spends an additional $419 million outside the state budget.

Scott received the bill from Corcoran late Monday.

“I am still reviewing it,” he said in Miami.

Critics of the bill continue to mobilize opposition, using social media to attack a measure they call an assault on public education.

“Call/write Gov. Scott to #veto7069,” Broward Superintendent of Schools Robert Runcie tweeted.

Scott’s office said that as of Tuesday, it had received 23,440 calls, letters and emails in support of the bill and 22,734 opposed.

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, said the way the bill was crafted is reason enough for Scott to veto it.

“The final version of HB 7069 was put together behind closed doors by legislative leaders at the end of session,” Diamond wrote in a letter to Scott. “In my view, there was not enough meaningful opportunity for public input on such an important and complicated piece of legislation.”

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, a lawyer, said the bill could face a legal challenge on procedural grounds. Any lawsuit would be politically popular among teachers, who make up a core constituency of the Democratic Party.

Miami-Dade Schools told legislators that the district will face a $52 million shortfall if Scott signs the bill.

The fact that Scott wanted Corcoran at his side Tuesday is the strongest indication yet that the governor will sign HB 7069, which Corcoran calls “transformational” and has been under attack for weeks by educators across Florida.

As Democrats anticipate Scott’s challenge of Nelson in 2018, the party criticized what it called a “self-promotional tour” by the “self-serving” governor.

“His budget deal drains funding for public schools in order to create a personal political slush fund for Scott’s political cronies and campaign contributors,” said a statement from David Bergstein of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Scott has staged similar “victory tours” in recent years — whether he won or lost in the state Capitol — to draw media attention to his agendas in the state’s largest TV markets.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also was invited to participate on Tuesday’s tour, but he had left for a long-planned Senate GOP golf tournament fundraiser in San Diego before the governor finalized his travel plans.

Miami Herald reporter Alexandria Bordas and Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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